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UA program bridges gap between school and work


By Marissa Amoni-Jansons


They are young, ambitious and professional and these future retail elites could be working at a Target near you.

Prepped by hands-on experience, retail students at the University of Arizona are delving into the world of sales with optimism, hope and a working résumé.

“We’re producing students that retailers will hire,” said Melinda Burke, director of the Terry J. Lundgren Center for Retailing at the University of Arizona.

Housed in the John and Doris Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences, the center’s focus is on developing retail leaders who are successful in all areas and across all channels, Burke said.

For the past 12 years, UA retail students have benefited from the center’s mission to develop retail leaders and bring resources to their fingertips.

“The center supplements what we are doing in the classroom. It bridges the gap between the classroom and the retail industry,” Burke said. “The internship program allows students to get their feet wet and develop ‘soft’ skills, whereas the (retailing and consumer science) major emphasizes analytic skills.”

Soft skills, such as customer service, are crucial in the retail industry, said Burke, as she mentioned the degree’s emphasis on the “5 Ps” of retail: people, price, place, promotion and product.

“Students are taught to understand how to develop and promote a product, how to create a supply chain, etc. But the people ‘P’ teaches them how to take care of the customer and the importance of human resources.”

Burke noted that being part of the School of Family and Consumer Sciences shows the program’s strong dedication toward the customer.

Annie Millstone, a junior in the retail program, appreciates the emphasis on people relations.

Part of the way through her summer internship at Target, she realized her desire to be part of the human element in retail and changed her focus from advertising or buying to management and human resources.

“The ‘store side’ (vs. corporate) environment is upbeat and exciting,” said Millstone, who hopes to work for a large department store in southern California when she graduates in 2008.

Millstone’s latest learning endeavor was to help coordinate a districtwide volunteer event for Target.

“They have us doing everything and you learn that a lot of leadership goes into management, but I like this (task) the most. It is more about dealing with people,” she says. Aside from the Target internship, the center has assisted Millstone with networking opportunities and with realistic coaching.

“(The professors) have had actual retail experience. It is nice to get coaching from them because they have lived through it.”

Having served on the student advisory board last year, Millstone realizes all of the opportunities the center offers to active students. Students In Free Enterprise or SIFE is just one special offering for retail students interested in joining an organization or becoming active in the community.

“SIFE gives students an opportunity to take what they learn in the classroom and apply it to real life,” said Michelle West, director of public and media relations at SIFE. “Using that knowledge in the community reinforces what they learn.”

The global nonprofit organization establishes student teams that take on various projects in the community, such as preparing annual reports or business plans for small firms or start-up businesses. The teams then compete at the regional and national levels.

Being part of a SIFE Team motivates and mobilizes students to go out into the community and teach their skills to make a difference, says West.

“It facilitates personal growth. There are people from all backgrounds (in the community) that are enabled to create their own success if they have the skills.”

Although community and customer service are at the forefront of the retailing program, course work also plays a major role, said Shelley Huff, who graduated from the program in May.

“It is different than any other program in that it gave me more opportunities than at any other college. The course work was directly related to the field of study,” Huff said.

The native Tucsonan will start in the buyer-trainee program at Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., later this summer. Huff said that while at UA she wrote three business plans, various business models and helped open the A Store at the Tucson Mall.

“The opportunities were incredible. They were life-altering.”

A strong statement maybe, but those experiences, along with meeting the likes of Terry Lundgren, CEO of Macy’s; Kenneth Cole of Kenneth Cole Productions apparel; and Lee Scott, CEO of Wal-Mart, are watershed moments for a retail student.

Huff, who was recruited by the senior vice president of Wal-Mart, said she received six job offers while attending UA. She chose to become a buyer for the retail conglomerate because of its buying power and the responsibility she would be given. Travel opportunities will also be a perk. The negative attention the company receives does not sway Huff.

“You’re always going to be criticized when you are the biggest.”

Huff said that although Tucson’s job market is doing better, it is almost essential to leave the city for leadership positions. She added that everyone she knows who graduated from the retailing program wanting corporate leadership roles is also leaving for positions elsewhere.

However, there is a “huge entrepreneurial spirit in the program. A lot of students want to own their own business,” Huff said.

That diversity is what makes the retailing program a success. Burke again stressed the program’s holistic view.

“We teach them how to think intelligently – to have the appropriate mind-set and the ability to react to different situations. (Students) are given the tools to understand technology and the customer and the changing consumer outlook … they know how to analyze business.

“They learn to think like a retailer,” Burke said.

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